Mission Accomplished

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On September 12, under beautiful blue skies with abundant sunshine, Rico Suave and I climbed atop the sign at the summit of Mt. Katahdin, successfully completing our 2015 northbound thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. This blog post is one I have spent months thinking about: How would I feel? What would I say? Fortunately, first on the docket is the recap of our foray through Maine, so I have a bit of paper space to fill before diving into the complex world that is the end of this journey.

Southern Maine

Conquering the Whites of New Hampshire felt really great, but only for a moment, a reality check looming, having been duly forewarned that southern Maine was not to be discounted. Rugged is the word most often used, and it truly does the trail justice. We had learned our lesson of not over scheduling miles through the Whites and continued that strategy as we left Gorham, NH, and headed for the Maine border, our thirteenth and last state line to cross. Before we crossed into Maine, New Hampshire had to make sure to get in one last jab and a literal one at that. An unfortunate slip down a wet rock, followed by an unsuccessful attempt at grabbing a branch to ease my fall, found me with a foot-long gash on my arm, from my shoulder to my elbow. This being my third or fourth fall of the day, I thought I was just crying from fatigue until it registered that my arm was really stinging. When Rico ran over, we saw blood dripping and realized I had unintentionally tattooed myself. Luckily, Rico was raised in a family of nurses and has some wilderness EMT training under his belt, so he took excellent care in dressing and wrapping my wound. Left to my own devices, I probably would have waited until our next water source, dunked it in to wash it out, and called it a day. Yet another reason I would have never survived out here alone. We had been told about the great vistas in Maine and would have loved to confirm their existence…had we seen them. As luck would have it, during our first several days on the Maine segment of the AT, we were clouded in on every peak and range we summited. Our one consolation was the abundance of wild blueberries at the top of the bald mountain peaks. They were ripe, delicious, and plentiful. We would have factored in extra time in our day had we known just how long we were going to spend picking—and eating–berries. The first week of Maine hiking found us wet, damp, and sluggish. Out of the half a dozen mountain ranges we summited, we only had clear skies on one of them–Bald Plate, right outside of Andover, which was absolutely spectacular. The climbs in southern Maine are no joke. The terrain was as unforgiving and exhausting as I’ve ever seen. We didn’t plan any big mileage days and I’m so glad we didn’t. We had given ourselves plenty of flexibility to get to Stratton, where we were due to get off the trail for a much anticipated family wedding. Originally, we left Gorham with enough food to get to Rangeley, ME, if we kept a somewhat aggressive pace. That turned out to be overly ambitious as neither our pace nor motivation were favorable. The day we did Mahousic Notch, we almost cut our planned mileage in half. Mahousic Notch is aptly named “the most fun and difficult mile of the AT.” It’s a mile-long string of huge boulders, situated every which way, that you have to climb up and over, wiggle through, and jump between. It’s fun, but time consuming. We also hit it on a very damp morning, so we had the added challenge of having to negotiate rocks that were slightly wet. We knew we had to take our time through the boulder-studded terrain, and that we did. Rico has had previous bouldering and caving experience, so he was right at home navigating through the obstacles. I’d like to think I held my own, but I know I slowed Rico down considerably. After the notch, there is the famed arm, a notorious climb straight up. It turned out to be not as bad as we had been told, and subsequently had expected, but nonetheless, it was very slow going. By the time we hit the next shelter for lunch, we were still planning to do another ten miles to stay on pace. Fast forward four miles and a couple of hours later, and we were toast. So, we altered our plan and decided to pop into Andover for a resupply, instead of trying to stretch our food for another two days. The gleeful implication was that we could now empty our food bags into our stomachs. Granted, hikers’ appetites are out of control, but we earn our daily intake…and then some. Andover was a great pit stop. Coming as no surprise, we spent way more time there than expected. The Red Hen Inn was cozy and comfortable and had electricity—lengthening our stay was a no-brainer. Luckily, the terrain directly out of Andover was gradual, so we got in a solid 14 mile day even with the resupply. Ordinarily, this would feel like a very short day, but in Maine, any daily mileage in the double digits is a win.

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Our spirits were really starting to take a beating with all of the cloudy, gloomy weather, the seemingly endless climbing, and the slow pace of the days. We were putting in so much effort and seemingly making so little progress. The thing that surprised me the most was just how “over it” we were. As NoBo thru-hikers, we expected to be jolted with a surge of energy, being in the last state and facing the final trail segment. Unfortunately, we were rather overwhelmed with the realization that the last stretch was proving to be incredibly physically demanding, a couple of hundred difficult miles standing between us and the finish. Our bodies were slowly breaking down, our mental toughness waning. After having hiked for weeks on end over brutal terrain, instead of feeling strong and powerful, we were feeling beaten down and weak. Thankfully, we knew we had a wedding weekend off-trail to look forward to, so that kept our feet moving, albeit slowly and marginally steady. We had an awesome stay in Rangeley at the Farmhouse Inn. We managed to snag a private room and were thrilled to find that it came fully equipped with a kitchen and a private bath, sheer luxury by hiker standards. We spent the evening cooking a dinner that was only slightly more complicated than adding boiling water to a pasta mix. (Spoiler alert: we had chicken over a bed of lettuce.) In the morning, we cooked up a breakfast feast–just what we needed to fuel us up for the next two days to Stratton. Of course, we had rain, fog, and crazy whipping wind the next two days, which included traversing a three mile stretch on an open summit along a rocky ridge. Getting to Stratton and knowing we had four days off was our saving motivation, enabling us to power through the challenging conditions. The morning we descended into Stratton, we crossed a huge milestone–the 2000 mile marker. It was really hard to wrap our heads around the fact that we had walked 2000 miles from Georgia to that point, but then, of course, my feet and knees brashly reminded me of the toll exacted on them—and belief was not so hard after all. You might think that taking four days off so close to the end of the trail would be disadvantageous, but it provided a much needed mental break for us. The wedding weekend was lovely. We left one mountain range and arrived at another, arguably our favorite, the Adirondacks. We enjoyed a fun-filled, if not sleep deprived weekend, reconnecting with family and old friends to celebrate Rico’s cousin’s wedding. It was a definite shock to our systems to be around so many people with all the ensuing commotion and conversation. I think we underestimated how used to the serenity and quiet of the woods we had become. I think I speak for both of us when I say that our heads were spinning, trying to keep up with everything. After we said our goodbyes and got into the car for the drive back, we sat in silence almost the entire ride home. And by home, I mean back to the trail which has been our de facto home for the past five months. We re-hit the trail, keenly aware we had a mere 11 days left, and we were determined to make the most of them.

The last two weeks of the trail seesawed between disbelief that we were almost done and relief that this would soon be over. From Stratton to Monson, we took our time–sense a theme here? We woke up and made coffee in the morning, ate breakfast in bed aka sleeping bags and stopped for the day when we wanted to. This section of Maine was absolutely beautiful. The trail traced around pond after pond, not a motor boat or lake house in sight. One day, we ate all three meals lakeside. In the evening, we brought our food down by the shore and watched the sun dip behind the trees, leaving rays of color reflecting on the water. Although it wasn’t spectacular hiking, these moments of lakeside repose stand out as some of my favorites on the trail. How excited we were to get into Monson–our last trail town, resupply, and check-in point before standing at the base of Katahdin! We stayed at Shaws Lodging, which was an amazing hiker place, super friendly and clean. The biggest challenge was trying to figure out how much food to bring and what to get that we weren’t already sick to death of. You see, Monson is the southern terminus of the 100 Mile Wilderness–a 100 mile stretch with no real or accessible access points at which to get food or supplies. Of necessity, hikers have to go into the wilderness with enough food to get them out and can’t really afford to undershoot. The downside is that there is a temptation to over-pack. In any case, you must carry an incredible amount of food weight, and the first few days of the wilderness are known to be difficult. We hadn’t had to carry more than four days of food since the Smokies. Some hikers try to rush through the wilderness as fast as they can, able to do it in about 4.5 days. We had to be strategic about our days because we were going to start the wilderness on Saturday and weren’t meeting my mom and friend until the next Saturday morning. We figured if we got to Abol Bridge, the northern terminus of the Maine wilderness–not to mention the first spot to grab food–on Thursday, then we could do the last ten miles from there to Katahdin Stream Campground in Friday. We’d then have almost a full day to relax before the last climb to Mt. Katahdin. We tried to diversify our meals as much as we could from a very limited selection and hoped for the best.

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We had a really great stretch through the wilderness. The weather could not have been more cooperative. What surprised us the most was how hot it was. Generally, one expects September in Maine to be cool and crisp, the start of fall. Wrong—completely. It was close to 90 a few of the days and humid to boot. I don’t think we’ve sweated that much since Pennsylvania. Luckily, on the hottest of the days, we were by Jo Mary Lake and couldn’t resist a mid-afternoon dip. The water was perfect! I don’t think the wilderness lives up to its daunting reputation. The first couple of days are a tad challenging, but the scenery is just stunning. Once you get over White Cap, the terrain totally flattens out, making for a very pleasant few days. Allegedly, you can see Katahdin from White Cap, so the whole day I was excited to get there and a bit emotional at the thought of seeing the mountain we had worked so hard and walked so long to meet face to face. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see it. I don’t know if it was because it was a bit hazy or that we didn’t know what we were looking for, but everyone says you know when you see it, and well, we didn’t know, so we figured we didn’t see it. In fact, we didn’t see it until the last day of the wilderness, as we ascended Rainbow Ledges. We were actually looking in the totally opposite direction, and still couldn’t see it. We turned to start heading down and suddenly, there it was–erect and distinct amongst a vast valley of wilderness. It was a pretty incredible sight to behold. Okay, it was majestically magnificent!

We got to Abol Bridge around 11 a.m. and had the whole day to relax. We had just ten miles to go the next day to get to Katahdin Stream Campground, the last stop before Katahdin. We idled the day away, eating and drinking and waiting for the hours to pass so that we could go to sleep, wake up, and finish the trail. We also spent a lot of the day musing about the weather. The forecast for the next day, Friday, was terrible–rain all day. As hikers started to pile into the campground, the first question was always, “You going up tomorrow?” followed by an “I don’t know, the weather is supposed to be shit” or “Yes, I have to because of xxx” or “No, I’m going to wait and go up Saturday”. Luckily our decision had been made for us because we had family coming up to hike and celebrate with us on Saturday—our locked in day for summiting. Even more fortunately, Saturday was being forecasted as partly sunny with temps in the low 70s. Obviously, we were really holding out for that forecast to be true. When we woke up on Friday morning, it was pouring and had been for hours. We figured it was a fitting last day on the trail, a final reminder that Mother Nature will not be dictated to. But we didn’t care.

We had ten easy miles and an epic weekend of reunions ahead of us. We had managed to connect with my mom, who was coming from California, via DC, and she had snagged a campsite inside Baxter State Park for Friday night. At first, we thought we’d like to spend our very last trail night on the trail, but knowing my mom would be camping just a couple miles away– and had the mobility of a car to go to town for food (yes, it’s always about the food!), we thought it’d be fun to stay the night with her and our friend who was also arriving later that night. Mom and our friend, Caitlan, were going to summit with us, so it made the most sense logistically for us all to be together that morning so we didn’t have to worry about the meeting point and time syncing up perfectly. Weather notwithstanding, we hightailed it the ten miles to Katahdin Stream, officially crossed into Baxter State Park, home of Katahdin, and registered at the ranger station—our official thru hiker numbers being 515 and 516. For comparison, we were numbers 704 and 705 at Harpers Ferry, the halfway point of the trail. At both checkpoints, we were ahead of the bubble, meaning more people were behind us at each point. We remain curious as to how many people that checked into Harpers Ferry ultimately summited Katahdin.

Seeing my mom pull into the parking lot was so exciting. She had been present on the drive to Springer when we started the trail and had hiked up with us to the plaque designating the trail’s official beginning. Now she was at the base of Katahdin, ready to hike up for the summit finale. There were so many moments along the trail that I wished my mom could have actually been there to see what we were experiencing– a fellow adventurer at heart, she has lived this trail vicariously through us, cataloging every day on her calendar and corresponding map–so it was incredible for her to have the opportunity to get just a taste of what I’ve been trying to explain through blogs, emails, calls, and texts. Friday evening, we went into town and decided to surprise Rico’s mom, aunts and uncle, who hadn’t expected to see us until the following night, after we had summited Katahdin. Yes, we had quite the finishing committee. Rico’s mom came from Richmond, Hilde and Loren from Rochester, Wendy from the Adirondacks, and friend Caitlan from DC. In case it hasn’t been abundantly obvious, we have been overwhelmingly supported by family and friends throughout this hike, for which we are eternally grateful. After a great dinner in the nearest town of Millinocket, Mom, Caitlan, Rico and I headed back into Baxter to spend the night at our reserved lean-to and rest up for the big hike the next morning. While our intention was to rest up, in reality, I’d say three out of four of us simply endured the night, waiting for morning so that we could get up and get going–Rico was the lone sleeper, that boy can and will sleep anywhere. Poor Mom and Caitlan weren’t accustomed to the confined quarters of a tent and sleeping bag, so their sleep was interrupted by various discomforts. As for me, I was just too damn excited to sleep.

Summit Day

We woke up to a perfectly crisp morning and hoped beyond hope that the forecast was going to hold. We packed up and got to the trailhead around 7 and were incredulous at the scene: it was crowded!! There was even a ranger directing car traffic. A number of thru hikers had waited out the weather Friday; add them to the numerous day hikers who planned to attempt to summit and it was as crowded as I’ve ever seen a trailhead. But no matter, nothing could get me down that day. After waiting in line(!!) to sign in at the trail register, we were off. Now, we had duly warned Mom and Caitlan about the intensity of the hike and its strenuous nature, letting them decide if they wanted to attempt the 5.2 miles up and 5.2 down. They exercised due diligence in their research and decided they were in. What we didn’t realize we needed to warn them about were unexpected encounters with winged creatures….

About a mile and a half in, a man up ahead of us was standing slightly to the side, screaming and slapping himself. We guessed that mosquitoes or flies were the most likely culprits—if only that had been the case! Unfortunately, a wasp nest had been stirred up by all of the passing hikers and they were swarming, hornet-style mad. One by one, we decided to try our luck at running past sic through the angry horde. And one by one, we each got stung. I don’t know if I’ve ever been stung by a wasp before, but boy do those suckers sting! Like, for a long, long time. After making sure everyone was okay and not suffering from an allergy, we continued on our way, lamenting at the ever present, but hardly dulling sting sensations coursing through our flesh! The first mile and a half was gradual, but the trail started getting steeper as we went up. Rock staircases turned into rock piles, requiring large lunging steps with occasional hand grabs as assists. And then we hit it–the vertical boulder scramble for the next two miles. Mom and Caitlan blew us away at their speed and agility scrambling up those rock edifices. They are both naturally athletic; my athleticism is an act of sheer determination and conditioning. As we climbed up, we occasionally stopped to admire the view–a truly breathtaking blue sky with billowy clouds, far enough in the distance as to not interrupt the warmth of the sun’s rays. We weren’t even halfway up, and we already felt on top of the world. The valley was speckled with ponds the surrounding mountain slopes graced with the shadows of the clouds. It was stunning. But alas, our destination yet loomed in the distance—up, up, and up. Turning back to the rock face, we continued to make our way. It was slow, but so much fun. With the temperature in the low 70s and the sun shining, we were warm without sweating profusely. After the first huge climb, we walked along a rocky ridge to make our way to the next and final ascent to the summit, home to the elusive trail’s end sign. As we started going up the final climb, everyone’s legs were feeling the effects of the work and energy exerted. Nevertheless, forge ahead we did.

And then—oh, happy day!–we saw it. The sign–the symbol marking the end of our journey, the sign that I had dreamed and thought and talked about touching since April 3. I was overcome with emotion and was crying as Rico and I clasped hands and walked the final steps to the summit. It was surreal. Although there were a lot of people on the summit, I barely noticed them. All I saw was the sign. We climbed up, threw our hands up in the air and beamed. We did it. We thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. Never once did we take a shortcut. Not once did we skip over a section. Step by step, we walked from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin Maine–2,189.2 miles. We never gave up. We didn’t let the trail defeat us. Instead, we conquered it. A once in a lifetime journey—and believe us, once is enough—is over. We are proud, happy, and yes, tired. But most of all, we are thankful for the support received and the love shared with each other, friends, and family every step of the way. Although we are officially on the other side of this adventure, many more feelings, thoughts, and emotions remain to be shared—about the journey itself and certainly about what lies ahead. Our heart-felt thanks again to each and every one who has been a part of this incredible experience, virtually, vicariously, and vis a vis.

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Comments 1

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    David Wallace : Sep 21st

    Truly enjoyed following your journey…….I hope your future endeavors turn out as well as this one.

    Reply

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